Mitsubishi Evo v Impreza v Vectra VXR v BMW 330i: Vauxhall scares BMW!

Mitsubishi Evo IX and Subaru Impreza STI meet the Vauxhall Vectra VXR and BMW 330i M Sport. Which delivers the best drive?

The unmistakable high-rise spoiler of a Mitsubishi Evo is jinking and weaving ahead of me as we skim across Exmoor, black soot belching from its huge exhaust every time another upshift hits home. If the straight is long enough, the Evo pulls out a noticeable gap, and into the slower corners it steals another few yards. As the road opens up and tight corners melt into fast sweepers, the gap stabilises. Absolute acceleration counts for nothing now, it's the ability to carry speed that matters. And the Evo can't shake me off. I can't shake the car behind either, but as with the Evo ahead, the gap back to the Impreza is almost constant. On wicked roads, littered with sump scars from unseen undulations and always throwing-up nasty surprises - the kind of roads tailor-made for cars like the Mitsubishi and Subaru - an interloper is matching their every move. Incredibly - no, scrub that - shockingly, that car has a Vauxhall badge on its nose. The Vectra VXR is splitting the two hardest, most outrageous rally wannabes right down the middle. And despite significant horsepower advantages, not to mention the benefit of two extra driven wheels each, there's nothing they can do about it. Frankly, I'm staggered at the Vectra's sheer ground-covering ability. The roads are dry, which levels the playing field, but even so, none of us would have expected the VXR to live with the final car of this foursome, BMW's superb 330i M Sport, let alone get stuck into the rally reps. The 251bhp 2.8-litre turbocharged V6 is giving 26bhp to the Impreza and 75bhp to the ballistic Evo FQ-320 (we wanted a FQ-300, but there isn't one on Mitsubishi's press fleet), and at £23,995 it's easily the cheapest car here. To be honest we almost didn't include it in the test. It seemed like leading a lamb to the slaughter. But in two days it has won our respect and ruffled more than a few feathers. Rewind 48 hours and I'm getting my first taste of the VXR on the long slog down to Devon from our Northamptonshire base. At the same time, Roger Green is easing down the M5 in the 258bhp, £31,555 BMW 330i M Sport and Catchpole is yumping across the countryside in the 326bhp, £29,999 FQ-320, all of us homing-in on the Royal Oak in Withypool, our base for the next two days. One of the illustrious Fraser clan, on this occasion Antony, will arrive tomorrow in the latest, 277bhp Impreza STi, the closest in price to the VXR at £26,995. Predictably, given its sales-rep roots, the VXR feels perfectly at home on the motorway. The ride is controlled and supple, the engine barely perceptible over the gentle roar of massive 235/35 R19 Continental rubber (the 19in rims are a £500 option). It doesn't feel like a mundane repmobile, though. The seats grip you tightly and the turbocharged V6 is effortlessly muscular in the mid-range. It sounds great too: bassy, smooth, and full of intent. As with little-brother Astra VXR, the throttle response seems jerky - especially if you select Sport, which also stiffens the CDC constantly variable dampers and relaxes the traction and stability control systems - but the V6 has a well-judged delivery, the twin-scroll turbocharger coming in smoothly at 1500rpm, then dying off as the power ramps up, leaving you with the big-hearted shove of a normally aspirated V6. Okay, so 251bhp might seem a modest output for a turbocharged 2.8-litre engine, but on real roads and with a strong 262lb ft available between 1800rpm and 4500rpm, the Vectra feels as quick as its aggressive VXR styling tweaks would have you believe. I arrive at the Royal Oak wondering if anyone will listen to me when I tell them that the Vectra might just be a bit of a surprise... The morning breaks dry and bright, and the roads that criss-cross over the rolling hills seem wonderfully inviting. I'm as excited about driving this quartet as I have been since our Car of the Year horsepower-fest. To be honest I'm a bit supercar'd out (I know, your heart bleeds), and I'm looking forward to driving some real cars on real roads. Forget drama and escapism, the next couple of days will be about grubby real-world thrills with a chunk of aggression thrown in for good measure. Speaking of which, the Evo IX is calling. You almost feel sorry for the Vauxhall, BMW and even the Subaru when the Evo's four-cylinder engine wakes-up with its trademark flat metallic blare, its bassy exhaust underscoring the engine's digitally-programmed, rock-steady idle. The enveloping seats, plain, brittle dash and superb visibility are all very familiar, and as soon as you snick the slightly reluctant gearbox into first you know the Evo is about to hook into your nervous system and draw you into its world of frenzied power and fearless dynamics. Immediately it feels light, darty even, and after the relaxed gait of the VXR you sense that the Evo is an altogether more aggressive and demanding car. As the Evo has evolved, the ride has become less agitated and the damping more subtle; the engine too has gained some manners (especially with the addition of MIVEC variable valve timing in the IX), but there's no mistaking that the Mitsubishi's heart remains as hardcore as it ever was. These roads could have been designed to showcase the Evo's incredible agility, immense body control and explosive potential. The Bilstein suspension (first seen in the Evo VIII MR series) smothers the small-frequency bumps that characterise these roads, keeping the body flat and in total control. The front tyres are instantly and stubbornly responsive to your steering inputs. The rear is eager to help you hit every apex too: under power the tail edges out just enough to keep you perfectly on line, and as the turbo hits full boost the sidewall of the outside rear tyre seems to dig itself into the surface to ensure optimum, eye-popping traction. It might be an old formula, but with the Evo IX you sense that Mitsubishi has refined it to perfection. BMW has been refining the iconic 3-series for 30 years now, and although lacking the bristling aggression of the FQ-320, the new 330i, here with optional M Sport suspension, is a beautifully resolved package. As ever, the heart of the 3-series is another fantastic BMW straight-six engine. Rated at 258bhp and 221lb ft, it's pretty well-matched with the VXR, but the way it delivers is very different. With no turbo to bolster the mid-range, the 330i feels a bit weedy initially. But it's an engine that loves to rev, and when extended it quickly shrugs off the mild-mannered act and lunges for the limiter. Keep it over 4500rpm - when you hear it, you'll want to - and the 330i feels every inch a junior M3. You get so much from the BMW at low speeds, too. The interior is a million miles better than the other contenders here and there's a deep-seated quality to every control, be it an electric window switch or the short, firm shift of the six-speed 'box. The steering feels a shade heavy (this car isn't fitted with BMW's controversial Active Steering), but it's both accurate and willing to let you know about the subtlest changes in road surface. The 330i flows on the smoother sections of road with a composure and poise that even the Evo struggles to match; the engine giving up its power in an intense crescendo, the chassis completely within itself. There's almost no understeer, even when you're really working the tyres hard, and without a big glob of turbocharged torque upsetting the rear tyres there's abundant traction. With no limited slip diff, the 330i will light-up its inside rear tyre in tight turns, but aside from hairpins the BMW is always completely hooked-up. The middle pedal remains firm and responsive even after repeated hard stops, proving the brakes are up to the challenge, although they do feel super-sensitive, making them tricky to modulate smoothly. Still, it's rare that we ever feel so confident in the braking system of a BMW. Only a series of rapid-fire bumps peels back the 330i's immense composure, the suspension struggling to keep the wheels on the ground on occasion and giving you quite a rough ride. It's not as bouncy as a 130i, and the vertical movements never force you to back off, but you can't help wondering what the 330i might be like without heavy runflat tyres (in this instance Michelin Pilot Sports) taxing the suspension. Antony Fraser has arrived in the STi, which will probably confuse matters even further. VXR, Evo and BMW have already proved themselves to be capable and entertaining in equal measure, and now the latest STi, complete with trick Driver Controlled Centre Diff (DCCD) and Subaru's own version of active yaw control (using accelerometers to measure pitch and yaw), is ready to fight its corner. To be honest, with its gaping nostril and squinty eyes it already looks like it's punch-drunk. Roger nabs the keys first, and I jump into the VXR to see if it impresses on these much more challenging roads. I lead, and it quickly becomes clear that the Vectra has pace and composure to spare. The trick, constantly variable damping deals with the wicked dips and gnarled surface superbly, and front-end grip is huge - through very quick corners the STi looks like it's struggling to keep in touch. The VXR is by no means perfect, the steering is too light and you have to get past a dead patch either side of centre, but its sheer grip and strong body-control really buoy your confidence. And the way the rear of the VXR gently jinks out on turn-in to assist the front wheels is very impressive. It feels poised, with no torque-steer to speak of and supremely effective traction control. Poised? Vauxhall? Maybe I'm going mad... Apparently not: Roger says the Vectra looks superb from the following Subaru. 'It looks like it feels, really. I could see the rear taking attitude as you were turning-in, and it looks like it's gently drifting through all the corners. And through the quick stuff it really takes some hanging on to.' In terms of raw speed the VXR is far from outclassed in this company then, and only the lack of attention to detail lets it down. The revs of the V6 die away slowly and as a result the light shift can baulk when you try to hurry a downchange. And the clutch has an almost undetectable biting point. A minor point maybe, but enough to frustrate. And the Subaru? Well, Roger isn't immediately impressed. 'The steering feels very light, almost disconnected, which discourages you from leaning on the front tyres. I reckon the chassis itself still has the magic, but I think you need more than a brief drive to uncover its abilities.' I'm surprised. The new 2.5-litre STi Type UK has all the hardware, including the superb Bridgestone Potenza RE070 tyres that we've been crying out for since driving some very tasty Japanese imports (the Spec C springs to mind). It should be fantastic. As the sun sets I get my chance in the STi, and I'm immediately disappointed. Green is right: the steering is very light and manages to feel too jumpy initially, and then a bit slow when you start to really wind on lock. Worse, though, is how the steering column itself is shocked into a kind of loose rattling every time the front tyres thwack another nasty ridge or drop into a patch of broken road. And the ultra-stiff suspension means it finds more bumps than either Evo or VXR. I know from experience that the STi will have enormous grip, but I'm disinclined to lean on it. The outside temperature gauge is hovering around zero degrees, and I fear that the first I might know about the surface starting to freeze over will be when I'm sitting in a ditch wondering where it all went wrong... Scraping a thick layer of ice from the STi the next morning, I'm determined to persevere and unearth its potential. Henry is struggling to recognise it as the car he drove on the launch in southern France just a few months ago (evo 086). 'I was really looking forward to driving the STi again,' he says, 'but on such tight, bumpy and demanding roads I just haven't got much faith in the front end. You really need to feel connected here, but I certainly don't feel ready to really unleash the engine.' I know what he means, but one particular section of road we find for some gratuitous cornering shots provides the perfect opportunity to start to work the chassis hard. It's a tightening right/left/fast-uphill-right combination, followed by an irresistible yump, and with the luxury of around half-a-dozen passes the STi starts to make sense. The brakes are awesome, with huge, tireless retardation and not even a millimetre of dead travel. Throw the STi into the right-hand bend and despite the vague steering the front tyres lock onto line. There's a bit more body-roll at the front than the rear (the ride is so hard you don't expect any roll at all), but nevertheless the Impreza flicks from right to left lock with no fuss, changing direction with complete stability. Like the Evo, the Impreza's tail edges out and squats into the tarmac, keeping understeer at bay and yet never developing into a full-blown slide. The engine is very strong too, pulling through the mid-range with all the ferocity of the more powerful but smaller-capacity Mitsubishi. It flies through the uphill right, biting hard into the corner before charging towards the yump. It's brilliant fun. One last flat-out blast across our favourite of the moorland roads, with the Evo ever present in the STi's mirrors, proves that both Impreza and Evo have an extra level of point-to-point speed that you can access if you're prepared to throw caution to the wind. However, you have to be extremely brutal to pull out much of a gap over the VXR, and it's rare that you ever have the opportunity or the nerve to really ram home the advantage afforded by their massive traction. The BMW is never far behind either, and actually retains a neutral balance when even the Evo is starting to understeer. Which means concluding with a simple finishing order isn't very simple at all. If you bring price into the equation, the VXR makes a compelling case for a shock win. It's terrific value (the equivalent-price 3-series is actually a 130bhp 318i M Sport!), it's well-balanced and genuinely entertaining, and it'll be great for scaring cocksure Subaru owners. By the same token, the 330i would have to drop to dead last simply because of its massive price tag (especially if you spec it with sat-nav and leather). That would leave the Subaru and Mitsubishi fighting it out for second place. However, in terms of sheer ability and how much enjoyment you derive from driving each one, it's not that straight-forward. The Subaru is an awesome car to wring out. It's ballistic, has massive grip and a rare composure when you get right to the outer reaches of its abilities. However, it has lost some of its soul. The new 2.5-litre engine sounds, well, a bit dull and feels slow to rev unless you pick the perfect gear and have the full benefit of the turbo. But by far its weakest link is the light, lifeless steering. It ruins the experience, and the very stiff ride and stringy gearchange further dent the Impreza's appeal. You approach the VXR with lower expectations, but against the odds it really delivers. Like the Impreza, some of the details don't convince - the steering and gearchange particularly - but overall it's an exploitable, composed and exciting car to hustle along, with a lovely engine, superb traction and great brakes. In case you haven't guessed, it's much better than any of us had expected. The BMW has its flaws, too. Chief of which is the short-travel suspension. On smooth roads it's brilliant, but as the surface deteriorates some of the 330i's composure goes with it. Having said that, it never completely disappears, and the tenacity of the front tyres and the lovely tip-toe balance of the whole car are very special. It's close to greatness, and the aura of quality and that wonderful straight-six engine make it feel easily the most covetable for day-to-day use. But if the BMW is a versatile Swiss army knife, the Mitsubishi is a Samurai sword. It has just one brief to fulfil, and it does so with deadly conviction. You can only admire Mitsubishi's relentless pursuit of speed, efficiency and driver involvement. The Evo IX feels exactly what it is: a culmination of years of intense development. It's the most thrilling of the group, it's also the fastest, and the only car without a single element that detracts from the business of getting all of its power to the road and putting a big smile on your face. It wins, and by quite a margin.

Comparison

 Mitsubishi Evo IX FQ-320Subaru Impreza STiBMW 330i M SportVauxhall Vectra VXR
EngineIn-line 4-cyl, turbochargedFlat-4-cyl, turbochargedIn-line 6-cylV6, turbocharged
LocationFront, transverseFront, longitudinalFront, longitudinalFront, transverse
Displacement1997cc2457cc2996cc2792cc
Bore X Stroke85 x 88mm99.5 x 79mm85 x 88mm89 x 74.8mm
Cylinder BlockAluminium alloyAluminium alloyAluminium alloyAluminium alloy
Cylinder HeadAluminium alloy, dohc, 4v per cylinder, MIVEC VVTAluminium alloy, dohc, four valves per cylinder, AVCSAluminium alloy, dohc, 4v per cylinder, double-VANOS, VVTAluminium alloy, dohc, four valves per cylinder
Fuel and Ignition4G63 engine management, multi-point fuel injection, turbElectronic engine management, multi-point fuel injection, turboElectronic multi-point injection distributorless electric ignitionElectronic engine management, multi-point fuel injection, turbo
Max Power326bhp @ 6700rpm277bhp @ 8000rpm258bhp @ 6600rpm251bhp @ 5500rpm
Max Torque305lb ft @ 4300rpm289lb ft @ 4000rpm221lb ft @ 2500rpm262lb ft @ 1800rpm
TransmissionSix-speed manual, four-wheel drive, lsd, Active Centre Diff, Super Active Yaw Control,Six-speed manual, four-wheel drive, front, rear & centre lsd, yaw-rate & lat G sensorsSix-speed manual, rear- wheel drive, DSC traction and stability controlSix-speed manual, front-wheel drive, traction and stability control
Front SuspensionMacPherson struts, coil springs lower arms, anti-roll barMacPherson struts, coil springs and anti-roll barMacPherson struts, coil springs and anti-roll barMacPherson struts, coil springs and anti-roll bar
Rear SuspensionMulti-link, coil springs, dampers, anti-roll barStruts, trailing arms, dual link, anti-roll barMulti-link, coil springs, dampersMulti-link, coil springs, dampers, anti-roll bar
BrakesVented discs all round, 320mm front, 300mm rear, ABS, EBDVented discs all round, 330mm front, 305mm rear, ABS, EBDVented discs all round, 330mm front, 336mm rear, ABS,EBDVented discs fr, solid discs rr, 345mm fr, 292mm rr, ABS, EBD
Weight Kerb1400kg1495kg1525kg1580kg
Power to Weight236bhp/ton188bhp/ton172bhp/ton161bhp/ton
Max Speed157mph (claimed)158mph (claimed)155mph (claimed)161mph (claimed)
Lap Time1.26.101.26.101.301.31.55
Basic Price£29,999£26,995£31,555£23,995
Rating544.54
0 to 60 MPH4.4sec (claimed)5.0sec (claimed)6.1sec (claimed)6.5sec (claimed)
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